It was not long ago the 49ers had tons of salary-cap room.
That’s what happens when an organization is really bad at drafting and few of their players are even worth considering for a second contract.
The NFL trade deadline is scheduled for Tuesday, and the state of the 49ers’ roster adds a significant layer of complexity when it comes to any consideration toward adding a big-priced player to provide short-term assistance to a key position.
The 49ers took their shot last year at this time, acquiring veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos.
That move made sense because the 49ers needed a wide receiver to join the only other two receivers that earned any trust from the coaching staff: Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne.
Sanders was in the final year of his contract, so there were not any carryover costs. The 49ers acquired Sanders and a fifth-round pick from Denver for third- and fourth-round selections.
Also, the 49ers are expected to regain a fifth-round compensatory pick in 2021 for Sanders’ departure to New Orleans as a free agent, according to OverTheCap.com’s analysis of the NFL’s compensatory formula.
The 49ers are not in the same desperate position at wide receiver this year with Samuel, Bourne and rookie Brandon Aiyuk. (Although Samuel is out indefinitely with a hamstring injury.)
The 49ers do not want to make a habit of giving up draft capital because hitting on draft picks is the easiest way to churn the roster with low-risk, high-reward players.
But, as the 49ers have already discovered, if the drafts are too successful, that causes problems of a different kind.
Former general manager Trent Baalke left the roster in bad shape, but his back-to-back selections of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner created one issue that current GM John Lynch had to solve.
The 49ers could not keep both players. They opted to trade Buckner, the better player, to the Indianapolis Colts. That move saved the team $4 million annually on the cost of a long-term contract -- in comparison to Armstead -- while also providing a first-round draft pick in return.
Tight end George Kittle was underpaid for three seasons as a fifth-round draft pick. Players selected in the draft are eligible to negotiate new contracts after three seasons. The 49ers and Kittle came together on a five-year, $75 million contract extension at the opening of training camp.
Next up: Linebacker Fred Warner.
Warner could go through the same process as Kittle next year.
As a third-round draft pick in 2018, Warner has been on the 49ers’ ledger for about $1 million per season. But his next contract could place him near the top of the linebacker market with a deal in the neighborhood of Kittle’s $15 million-a-year compensation.
The salary cap this year is $198.2 million per team. With revenues plummeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, the cap could fall next season for the first time. Teams could have as little as $175 million to spend on contracts in 2021.
The Seattle Seahawks acquired veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap in a trade this week from the Cincinnati Bengals for backup offensive lineman B.J. Finney and a seventh-round draft pick.
If the 49ers had made the same deal, it would not have been so much about the price to acquire Dunlap but the cost in cap dollars to pay him.
Dunlap will make more than $4 million for the remainder of this season. The 49ers are right up against the cap as it is. He is scheduled to make $11.1 million next year.
The 49ers have to choose wisely when adding expenses.
Left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, along with most of the defensive backfield, are scheduled for free agency. That is going to cut a big chunk out of their salary cap.
Warner is next for a big contract, and he might not step on the field in 2021 without a new deal.
So, sure, the 49ers could be buyers at the trading deadline.
But there would almost certainly be an equal and opposite reaction on the roster next season.